Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Barn Find

Man oh man, does anything get the gear-head heart pounding faster than those two words? I can't think of anything in the collector car world that is more tantalizing than just the "idea" of a barn find. It's the kind of thing that if you were walking past a group of strangers at a car show and heard these two words flicker by, you would have to poke your head into the conversation... and they would understand. It's the car guys Tut's tomb, clouded in mystery and intrigue and always unfailingly tangled up in hearsay. For some reason it seems as though half of the fun is just getting to the bottom of what is and what might not be a tall tale. Of course these stories usually fall into the latter category, but every now and then one will pan out, and those are the ones that keep us taking the line over and over. 

As most of you have probably seen by now, the leading story in car guy news for the new year has been the discovery of a stunning barn find '37 Bugatti Atalante coupe that was found resting in a garage in the English countryside. Apparently Dr. Harold Carr, an orthopedic surgeon and known recluse, had purchased the car around 1960, drove it sparingly, and then parked it before the 1960s came to a close. Found recently by a family member of Dr. Carr, the rare, one of 17 produced, Bugatti is expected to bring in the neighborhood of 4 million dollars at an upcoming Bonhams auction where I'm sure it will be the featured item. 

Well that would surely have to rank right up there with the ultimate barn find stories of all time. Although this car wasn't a secret, ( I believe many Bugatti afficianados had known of this car for years and had been trying to purchase it from Dr Carr... to my knowledge I don't believe any who inquired ever received a response- if I could only find my copy of the book "The Bugatti Hunter" because I believe it is mentioned in there ) it was a secret to his family and we can only imagine their surprise when they found someone with the knowledge to inform them of their inheritance... much like the early '60s Pontiac race car that I wrote about in an earlier post. 

Unfortunately, neither myself, or anyone I know, has ever had the pleasure of hitting the automotive barn find jackpot at this level. Certainly I feel like I've gotten a good deal from time to time, maybe even felt I'd stolen something out from under other buyers, but I can't really say that I've ever personally hit on a major barn find. 

The only example I can think of might be the purchase of my '69 Chevelle SS396-375hp convertible. Now, it should be noted that I did not buy this car, my father was the one who purchased it back in the mid 1980s and that is how it made its way into our family, but I was there when it happened and was already a fully formed and rabid car nut. 

My father was working for GM at their Bedford, Indiana aluminum metal casting plant at the time. Again, I think this was 1985. Outside of the breakroom was a post-it board where workers would advertise any and all things for sale or trade. On this particular day my Dad spotted a white 3x5 card with this written on it; 1969 Chevy convertible for sale $3,500 see "Whitey" in maintenance. Thinking that this must be an Impala or Caprice or some other kind of big bodied land barge, my Dad let the better part of a week go by before he happened to run into Whitey and ask him about it. Whitey explained that the car belonged to his son ( who had been locked up since the early '70s ) and it was time to get rid of it. My Dad asked what it was and became immediately interested when Whitey said it was a Chevelle. Now the game was on. That day after work my Dad and I drove out to Whitey's farm to see the car. Whitey walked us to a building out away from his house and slid open the large front door. The car was just inside, parked up against the wall, and was covered with old blankets. Immediately I noticed the two humps in the hood telling of, if nothing else, a Super Sport hood. As the blankets were pulled away everything got real good real fast. This was not only a very nice, well kept, low mileage ( 47,000 ) car, but was in fact a true SS396 convertible complete with a 4spd and 4.10 rear end. Although the car had not been driven regularly in 10-12 years, Whitey had kept the battery up and said that he drove the car up the road and back every month for exercise. This must have been true as we had no problem starting and driving the car home that day. I remember Whitey stopping my Dad as he was about to pull out of the driveway and telling him that he almost forgot the wheels that go with it. It seems that Whitey's son had removed the original wheels early in the cars life to replace them with Keystone Classics. Sure enough, Whitey went and got what were new condition original magnum 500 style wheels with all of their trim rings and center caps and loaded them in the trunk. After getting the car home and inspecting it closer it just got better and better. Amazingly, it still had its original exhaust system in place, original spare wheel and tire, original shocks, and nearly every original under-hood component. I think my Dad felt confident that he'd gotten a good deal but I don't think either of us could have guessed the significance that the 375 hp engine would have to the car. It wasn't until we went to the Chevelle nationals in Pigeon Forge, Tn in 1986 that we were made aware of the rarity of what was now the family convertible. That $3,400 purchase price was looking better all the time... and no, I can't remember for the life of me how the 100 bucks got dropped off the asking price. Maybe my Dad thought $3,500 was just over the line for an old car in a barn.

Feel free to send along any and all of your barn find stories... like I said, there's nothing better. 

BTW, the attached photo of the Chevelle was taken the day we brought it home. 

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